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Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

We broke up from school/work last week.

Isabel went to her first big end of term party, in a field (like you do when you live in a semi-rural area).  Middle class teenage girls are so funny when they’re drunk.  (“I’ve done all the recycling!!”)

Rhiannon and I went on a walk across the Downs for a pub lunch, and I stupidly got slightly sunburnt, as I decided not to wear sun cream because I was fed up with having white arms and shoulders.

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Apart from this healthy interlude, the last 5 days for me have been pretty much an unending blur of cooking/baking/eating/drinking.  Oh, and getting stuck into the particular pile of the books I’ve accumulated over the year, where I’ve looked at them and thought “that’s a really big book”, and put them on the really big book pile.

It’s been ages since I had a book that I just couldn’t wait to get back to, and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was it.

It’s the story of two tailors in India, nephew and uncle, who go to work for a woman who is trying to make an independent living as a “middle (wo)man” in the tailoring business, and who is also providing lodgings to a young student.  The story starts during the Partition and runs up to the Hindu-Sikh violence of 1984 (which I remember from the news), although most of it is set in the 1970s.

The story has a broad sweep, examining the violently murderous oppression of the lower castes by the uppers in rural areas, and constructing a detailed portrait of the ways in which people survive the different pressures of living in the city.  The characters come from a variety of backgrounds – from lost riches, from among beggars and slums, from the innocence of the mountains, hauled up from The Untouchables, and the story is admirably constructed from all the elements that go into it.  It’s the pressure of these elements that give the book its irresistible narrative drive – how do people live among all these daily threats to livelihood?  Although at times you could be cynical and say that the book comes across as over constructed, I chose to take it as a touch of magical realism in the tradition of eg the much harder to swallow Salman Rushdie (hated that Haroun book, I have the Satanic Verses to look forward to next.)

I was also intrigued to see how Mistry would sort out what sort of an ending to give the book – a happy ending would seem trite against the background of such poverty and hopelessness, but a sad ending would be a brave thing for an author to inflict on the reader who’d just invested 600 pages of their lives in them.

Hopefully without giving too much away, it was a fitting ending.  It underlined a main theme of the book for me – how to make a reader understand a world that was in all probability totally alien to them, and quite frightening, and possibly easily overwhelming.  Without sentimentalising it, it did give me a glimpse into how people are able to live, and not just to survive, when surrounded by the constant possibilities of death, starvation, mutilation.

(I can’t believe this didn’t win The Booker Prize, which it was shortlisted for.  The winner that year was Last Orders.)

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. This was one of the very first books my book club read. We all loved it and there was so much to talk about. I remember the ending – as you say, it was a fitting one. At the time, I remember it being…well, I felt feelings. Over time the edges of that have softened and I’m glad that it was the ending he went with.

  2. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I might have had the same thoughts as well if I had been younger. It was an ending that gave me an understanding that I might not have been looking for when I was younger, and just wanted answers…

  3. This has been on my shelf for several years now. Still don’t know when I’ll start. I’m keeping it because Rohinton Mistry is a Canadian author and I still remember in an interview he described how difficult it was when he first immigrated here and looking for a job in a bank. They didn’t want to hire him because he had a beard. Interestingly, just a couple of days ago Starbucks announced that they’re going to loosen their dress code. Yes, t’s ok even if you had blue hair.

  4. Beautiful view over the South Downs . Haven’t read this one but thoroughly enjoyed The Year of the Runaways which you reviewed a while back. I guess this one will have to be added to the pile!

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